A Basic Marketing and PR plan for Indies.

Nowadays, I’m mainly a writer, designer and journalist. But I spent three years in video games PR, working for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more. Here’s a basic media campaign for an indie developer.

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Okay, so I spent three years in video games PR. After a few months I wanted out, but I stuck around for three years because… Nowadays, I rarely do active PR any more for projects I’m not personally creating (though I’m happy to advise / consult / draw up marketing plans / etc.) In my short career, I worked for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more.

So (sotto voce: appeal to authority) please believe me when I say that kind of PR and marketing is mostly inappropriate for indie game development.

PRs are expensive and best placed when dealing with large numbers of large visible media targets who don’t move around much. Their careful mixture of quartermaster and pimp is appropriate given the industry’s origins in wartime propaganda departments. They’re best when using their extensive contacts or cold-calling relevant media to place stories. Using them for an indie campaign is like building battleships when you’re fighting insurgents.

PRs have two aims; to make sure their client’s product is well-known and liked, and to maintain their relationships with as many people as possible who are relevant to their continued career. To do this, they charge a lot of money – £200-600 a day weren’t unusual amounts when I worked in a PR agency, though self-employed individuals will charge less.

Indies don’t need that. If you can afford to pay a PR, you can probably afford to pay a community manager who can do the role part-time. And if you have that money, I’m hesitant to call you an Indie (which is, just, like my opinon, dude.)

(Joe Martin mailed me to disagrees with this bit. He says: “Indie can mean the one guy who’s putting out his first Itch.io game. It can also mean Mike Bithell. It can mean people like Phil Fish, who arguably would have been better off with an agency to shield them a little.”

“Importantly, ‘Indie’ can also apply to people in the middle ground. There are people who do well but could do an order of magnitude better if there was a more robust PR plan in place or that freed them up to work on the game. Earlier I asked indies on Twitter what the biggest problem of doing their own PR was and nearly everyone said that it was that it took up so much time – time they could spend on the game instead. PR support of some sort is genuinely useful to these people – and it doesn’t have to be in the form of a big agency because…”

“The same is true for PR. You’re absolutely right that a big agency like Bastion would be inappropriate for an indie; but there are other options that could really help a one-man team get some extra reach at a reasonable rate. Simon Callaghan is someone I’d recommend for mid-sized indies or small studios. There are a bunch of freelance community managers I know who could fill the middle-ground.”)

For me, what indies need from PR, it’s best that they do themselves, because much of their appeal is in their individuality, which a journalist wants to make a personal connection with. When I get an email through from an Indie PR, it tends to not even get starred, because I know they aren’t expecting a reply most of the time – but when I get an email from the Indies themselves, I feel obliged to reply (except for super-Indies like Mike who have enough coverage already). That might just be me, but I’m betting lots of the press (subconsciously) feel the same. (I’m happy to hear I’m wrong)

Anyway, I promised a basic media campaign for an Indie. Infodump follows…

BASIC INDIE MARKETING CAMPAIGN PLAN

  • BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WHILST YOU’RE DEVELOPING.
    • This is just a matter of talking to journos and other devs.
      • If you need a foot-up, I maintain a Twitter list of journos here and developers here
    • Don’t talk about your game until you’re ready for stories to appear.
    • Engage on Twitter.
      • Cynically, questions are a good way of eliciting replies.
      • But you should genuinely ask them what they’re looking for from devs to get coverage. Personalised communications are much more time-consuming but are worth it.
    • Engage on developer forums. Show your stuff off. Your fellow developers are a great source of buzz about your game.
  • PLAN BEFORE YOU SEND ANYTHING OUT.
    • Think about when you’re realistically going to be done on your project.
    • Then check that you’re not going to clash with any other major announcements at that stage – you don’t want to come out at the same time as Minecraft 2. Move it back if you have to.
    • When you’ve got a date you’re confident you’ll be done by, subtract two months from it. That’s when you should start chasing for previews.
      • Previews are much more important than reviews because journalists (mostly) will only do previews if they’re interested in a product. So they’re mostly positive.
    • News pieces should appear in the two months before that.
      • This is to build buzz rapidly – Indie games typically only get one or two bites at the coverage cherry before review, so we’re not aiming for the long campaign of a AAA game. You need to get news piece, preview and maybe review as fast as possible.
      • As Joe reminded me, you also need to get this stuff up on Reddit. Find the right community, post the direct link from your press site / website (if you’ve built one – which you should. I know, I know, it’s all more work and you’d rather be coding.)
    • Reviews should appear in the week of release. You really want people to be able to click ‘buy’ right then and there.
    • Add an extra month lead time for any print publications you want to hit.
    • For important media, think about exclusive content you could produce – screenshots, skins, movies, beta codes, whatever…
    • If you have to do any contract stuff (like NDAs!) contract() can do that for you.
  • NEWS.
    • When your game is a good enough state to show off, you want an announcement news email / tweet. In that you’ll need:
      • Some assets.
      • Preferably an embeddable Youtube video of your prototype running.
      • A short, taut description of your game. Lots of active phrases, hyperbole.
      • A bit of blurb about your background.
      • Say you’re available for a chat about the game.
      • Keep it as casual as possible – Indie charm still works.
      • Personalise that email to each person you’re mailing. Hopefully, you’ve already been talking to/at them on Twitter. Try to talk about what you’d like from their site, and show that you’ve at least read it.
      • Feel free to chase on Twitter then email when a little time has gone by.
        • You want to remove friction at every stage. Every click to get something will lose some journos – every form or sign-in page will lose 90%. So minimize clicks.
  • PREVIEW is your second email.
    • It’ll have all the same bits as the above, all refreshed.
    • It’ll have a release date.
    • It’ll also have a preview code, if you can manage that. Steam or iOS codes are best. Use distribute() to get builds out.
  • REVIEWS should be tried for, but are hard to get these days.
    • You should also consider honestly whether your game is going to review well. If not, you probably shouldn’t chase reviews. Coast on that positive feeling from the previews and make a better game next time.
    • If you’re not sure, send it out anyway – the coverage from a positive review gets people to buy it. Negative reviews stop people buying it who weren’t going to buy it anyway.
      • I know certain PRs try to guess the intent of individual press and restrict access from potential negative impressions. That’s an option, but too stressful at this stage given your time.
    • Generate as many codes as you can. Many press won’t be happy to pay for your product, so make it easy for them to get it. Steam codes are best, iOS next (yes, I know they’re annoying), or even a version to download.
    • I’m torn between asking if they want codes or just sending them. The former means you’ve started interacting, which lets you communicate again, to chase coverage – but requiring them to email for a code is friction and friction stops coverage. It’s your call here.

Of course, having contacts beyond those you’ve made through Twitter is important. If you ask me nicely / donate to Games AID, I’ll point you in the right direction for any publications you’re missing. And, of course, if you invite me to write for your project instead, I’d be *obliged* to share my contacts for the purposes of PR. Hint, hint.

Interview: Jesse Schell on gaming, the social sciences, identity loss and behavioural shaping.

Previously Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, Jesse Schell thinks hard about the future of games; he’s worked on Toontown Online and teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon university. You can see his amazing DICE talk on the future of gaming here. This interview was conducted for a PC Gamer piece on Social Gaming about a year ago.

To the tune of: Björk – Human Behaviour

Previously Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, Jesse Schell thinks hard about the future of games; he’s worked on Toontown Online and teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon university. You can see his amazing DICE talk on the future of gaming here. This interview was conducted for a PC Gamer piece on Social Gaming about a year ago.

Jesse is very small.

You’ve posited that social gaming, or at least the tools developed for it, will become the backbone to how technology integrates with our lives. Your vision, in particular, focussed on direct ‘nudge marketing’ and how, if done crudely, it could become invasive. Do you honestly believe this will happen?
I think you are asking whether there will be annoying kinds of advertising related to games. Have you been on Facebook? Yes! Totally! There will be LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of annoying marketing games, in shapes and forms we can only start to imagine. “Buy a 24 pack of coca-cola, and get 100 free gold in World of Warcraft!” “Tweet about NBC TV shows five times this week, and get 20 farmcash, and a coupon for MacDonalds!” And on, and on, and on…

Is it a good thing? (Use your own moral code here, class).
Is it a good thing? I would say that no, mostly advances in annoying advertising are not good. I mean, a lot of cool and weird game experiments will show up because of this, and that’s good, but for every cool one, there will be twenty that are just irritating.

Will you be pushing this in your own projects (no matter, whether you think it’s good or bad)?
Well, part of what we’re doing at Schell Games are facebook games and other social network games. And for those to succeed, they have to be viral. And to be viral, you have to risk being annoying sometimes. Taking that risk goes with the territory.

Most of us get our happiness from others – so in social games, relationships should be first, content second. So few of them feature any real relationships at all, though, and very little content. How do they get away with this?
I wondered who took my happiness! It was you!

It’s not true when you say they don’t feature real relationships. If that was true, facebook games would work just as well with strangers as they do with your real friends. But they don’t. We don’t want to be ashamed in front of our real friends, and we want to feel equal, or superior, to our real friends, and so, there are powerful forces at work that make us want to succeed at games when our real friends are involved. So, real relationships are at the fore. The games don’t develop these relationships, but they do use them. And as for “very little content”, since when do games require “lots of content”? Where is the “content” in chess? Or draughts (yeah, I’m in my UK groove!)? or football? All a good game needs is a simple interaction with someone whose opinion I care about.

Is this just another consequence of our more efficient living – work has got more efficient, but instead of saving us time we’ve ended doing more than ever. Now we’re saving time on socialising too. The ultimate form of socialising is to feel the long-lasting happiness from being social in the shortest time.
Definitely, part of the appeal of social networks is to be able to socialize efficiently. That’s not a bad thing, historically, that’s what letter writing was for — a way to stay in touch that didn’t involve having to make a journey. Now we just have methods that are 100x more efficient than letter writing. How you choose to use them is up to you.

What are the great unanswered questions in social sciences that gaming could help answer?
One of them is surely this: Exactly what do people find rewarding? The social gaming universe right now is Darwinian experiment, evolving at 100x the speed of traditional videogaming, to find out what people find it rewarding to play, and to spend money on.

Are the major social gaming companies being short-sighted? The way they used playgen payment models, the way their systems don’t merely utilise social networks but almost abuse them – they’re driving the public away. At the moment, they’re still growing quickly enough no-one notices how many are dropping out, but if it ever gets to the stage that it becomes harder to drop out…
Some techniques definitely will gain money and players in the short term, and lose them in the long term. Is it crazy to use these techniques? It’s crazy to use them in the long-term, but in the short term, it will get you money and players, so it would be crazy not to use them! You can always change techniques later — in fact, you definitely will, since players, games, and technology are all changing so fast. None of us know what this stuff really looks like in the long term, so, yeah, a lot of companies are focused on the short term right now.

Is this technology repeatedly top-slicing our society, splicing off those who know how to access and manipulate these new information sources, and leaving them in a position of power over the rest of us?
No — it’s doing the opposite. Wasting the time and money of those who understand the most — which gives everyone else a chance to catch up!

Normally our value systems are inculcated in us through a combination of school and parental behavioural shaping, and a hint of own personality depending on how troublesome we prove. How are these things going to compete with relentless personalised marketing?
It’s a fascinating question! Does personalized marketing change us, or make us more like ourselves? Given the choice between the impersonal marketing that dominated the 20th century, and the freeform, personal marketing of the 21st century, I guess I prefer the latter. But to your question — in the 21st century, people will have an unprecedented freedom to become what they want to become — which means if you don’t like yourself, it’s your own fault.

This behavioural shaping isn’t good in another way – it only reinforces certain acquisitive behaviour. Will moral institutions (religions, humanists, illuminati) have to reorganise as digital lobbyists for the human soul, shifting their millions away from lobbying government for laws to shape behaviour to building their own incentive structures and social networks?
Yes, this is starting to happen now. There are countless grants to try to create videogames to encourage positive behavior of all kinds — better health habits, better learning habits, better environmental habits. It’s a tough battle though — for how can the government afford better games than the junk food, entertainment, and manufacturing industries?

Science fiction writers have been positing a total corporate societal takeover for years, but it hasn’t happened yet (I think). It won’t happen with this either, will it?
You mean like in Jennifer Government, where you need to have a credit card ready when you call an ambulance (everyone should read Jennifer Government, by the way! It would make a great movie, but I don’t think Hollywood has the guts to put out a movie where Nike is the villain)? No, corporations won’t take over the government through games, but they will nibble away at our identities with them, bit by bit.

Back to social gaming. The market’s not matured yet, in any way. Is this still the Wild West? Rife with Red Indies, and the big corporations laying railroads down and trying to tame a land they don’t yet understand?
Yes, mostly.

Facebook has established itself as the premium platform for social games. Do you think that was the only mistake World of Warcraft made – not establishing itself as a platform in it’s own right, when it had such a huge userbase. Do you see Facebook ever being superceded?
“Ever” is a long time. I will say that I believe that Facebook will be the dominant social network five years from now.

Evony – the advertising scandal and Gifford’s admission, in court, of being a liar for marketing purposes-  shouldn’t detract from them having made a passable strategy game. Can marketing and game design continue to be separated like this?
No comment on this question — I don’t know enough about the situation.

Most social games aren’t really games – just addictive mechanics designed to elicit cash. Also not really fun. In fact, in that they keep you from your friends and waste your time, are they completely invidious?
If they weren’t games, and they weren’t engaging, people wouldn’t keep playing them. And sometimes people don’t keep playing them. But when people do play them, and pay to play them, it’s because they are engaging. Remember, games don’t have to be “fun” all the time, they just have to be engaging.

If you were going to make a social game that appealed only to hardcore gamers, what would you do?
We have that! It’s called multiplayer FPS! Remember, it doesn’t have to be on facebook to be a social game!

Marketing A Gay Game

To The Tune Of: Tom Robinson Band – Glad To Be Gay

Again, this was a think-piece for a magazine that didn’t get used. The hypothetical situation was a game is about to released with a gay lead character; do you think that game would stand a chance at retail? If not, why not? If it landed on your desk, how would you go about marketing it? Here are my answers.

eNCHANT arM (Enchanted Arms) had a very strong gay character called Makoto.

I think it would stand the same chance at retail as any other game, but the clear point is that the gay character normally would not be relevant to the main thrust of the marketing – not because of homophobia, but because the gay demographic is just a subsection of the mainstream game-playing demographic. If I only targetted that audience, I’d be losing out on everyone else. It also matters if it were a tie-in or not – a game tied into a TV series like Will & Grace or Big Gay Al from South Park would obviously benefit from brand exploitation, but otherwise I wouldn’t bother marketing it that way.

That said, I’d definitely, budgets and time allowing, have a second prong of the marketing approach targetted at the gay community, and try and push it as a big story with the gay media, supporting that with developer access, interviews and possibly pull out survey data to explore whether the populace at large have a problem with the game; digging into the survey results could generate good news stories. It’s not something I’d hide, just not the main thrust of my marketing and PR unless we can find something mainstream to talk about.

I’d imagine that you might encounter those usual right-wing or religious organisations that stick to antiquated and/or arbitrary moral codes that would have a problem with the game, especially if the title has anything less than an 18-rating, but as a PR I’d let the UK rating authorities deal with whether it should be legal or not and just enjoy the extra sales generated by any controversy. That said, in the case of ultraviolent or sadistic games, it’s easy to take advantage of the media furore to increase sales for your game, while perhaps sharing qualms yourself about the moral value of the game; here, I’d argue that there’s a moral imperative for the company to pressure the rating authorities, saying that if there’s no violent or sexual content then the game should have the same rating irrespective of its homosexual content.

Thinking about the irrelevance of sexuality to the age-rating further; if a kid’s game explored human relationships in any real depth, I don’t think it would appeal to kids anyway and would be difficult to market, but if the lead character had a same-sex partner (like Noddy and Big-Ears, for example) and the game was enjoyable, then marketing it should be unproblematic. From a personal perspective,  there would be an additional moral imperative to make such a game a success.